Ruined Reputations

Ruined Reputations

South Africa in late September

South Africa is a problematic planting. Apart from the osteospermums, Cyrtanthus parviflorus, Phygelius capensis and a few watsonias, the bed’s colour from March to late July is created by non-South African plants. I do explain, and point out the healthy leaves of kniphofias, crocosmias, nerines and agapanthus to my visitors, but have the sneaking suspicion that most of them remain unconvinced.

The reputation of South Africa, all but ruined, would be completely down the drain by now were it not for August, September and October. Most S.A. non-natives have taken a backseat by now, or been hacked into submission by the gardener. The true South Africans shine.

Crocosmia 'Okavango' in background

Crocosmias are indispensable at this time of year and I’ve lost track of some names over the years. Some are worth keeping, while others, which produce masses of foliage and few flowers, have been earmarked for naturalising. Most have orange or reddish flowers, so Crocosmia ‘Severn Sunset’ with its soft, peachy colouring brings a welcome change (it needs full sun to give its best). I’m rather enamoured with the plants from the relatively new African River series for their strong, upright foliage and long flowering season. I own two and adore the delectable pink flush in C. ‘Limpopo’ as well as the glorious bright and pure orange of C. ‘Okavango’.

Of all the kniphofias in my garden, K. rooperi is perhaps my favourite late flowering

Kniphofia rooperi

species. The conical inflorescenses tower above their surroundings and look incongruously exotic under Shetland’s grey autumn skies.

There are probably as many species and cultivars of agapanthus as there are of kniphofia and crocosmia, but I have no idea what to call mine. They arrived as a job lot – unlabelled – from a wholesale nursery many years ago, and languished in pots for most of them. Their colours range from wisteria blue to delicate pastel shades – all are glorious and flower with immense freedom.

pale agapanthus

Agapanthus, incapable of shaking off its reputation as a semi-tender plant and, classed as flowering too late at this latitude,  is rarely seen in Shetland gardens.

Nerine bowdenii suffers from the same fate. But the cultivar ‘Mollie Cowie’, which sports a narrow white edge to its foliage, flowers a good three weeks before the species. I hope this may tempt some northern gardeners into giving it a try.

Nerine 'Mollie Cowie'

When ever I recommend the planting of some Michaelmas daisies to jazz up the autumnal garden, it strikes terror into the heart of my prospective customer: “Michaelmas daisies? – Never again.” They take over the garden and suffer from powdery mildew”, I’m told. None of mine do either, but the reputation of this wonderful group of plants has been irretrievably lost due to two reasons:

  1. A weedy, invasive cultivar that used to be in most Shetland gardens until copious amounts of “Tumbleweed” got the better of it.
  2. Leaving autumn asters without adequate moisture during the growing season will invariably cause mildew – another death knell.

striking terror into hearts

Colchicums aren’t universally loved either, because “they fall over”.  I believe they do – if placed in short grass in a windy location. They stand up pretty well if grown in longer grass, or given discreet support by herbaceous plants of a suitable size.

Gossip and rumour form an integral part of life in a small island community and mud tends to stick. Reputations ruined, more often than not without any foundation in fact, are hard to mend.

Colchicum 'Waterlily'

I’ll keep on preaching, and during my more optimistic moods, believe I may live to see the day when these wonderful plants manage to prove the gossips and scandalmongers wrong and take their rightful place in the islands’ gardens.

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